This confounding, neon-drenched Chinese thriller has echoes of Tarantino and Fincher

When Diao Yinan’s dazzlingly stylised neo-noir mystery Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin film festival, the reaction was two cheers rather than three. For every viewer struck and seduced by the film’s eerie power, there was another who praised its aesthetics while admitting they couldn’t make head nor tail of the plot – a slippery, snake-like business unfolding with the taxing scope of something like David Fincher’s Zodiac.

We begin in 1999, when a disembodied hand is found mingled with the coal on an industrial conveyor belt. The epic murder mystery that follows spans half a decade and confirms its writer-director as a bewitching stylist of neon alienation. A divorced cop called Zhang (Liao Fan) pursues the leads available, and is soon witness to a monumentally bungled arrest in a beauty parlour, before we fast-forward to 2004 in one sumptuous travelling shot through a snowy underpass.

Zhang has taken a job as a coal factory security guard, drowning his sorrows. The body parts are still piling up, some with ice skates gruesomely attached, and all the victims seem connected to a widowed laundry clerk (sad-eyed Gwei Lun-Mei) with whom Zhang becomes obsessed. Deadly night pursuits sashay into gliding, single-take wonders across a frozen lake.

Puzzling out the whos, the whys and the WTFs of this marvellously oddball case takes a back seat to drinking in the film’s dark, shining evocation of night and the city. The staging is like Tarantino in a brooding funk: take the beauty parlour face-off, a flurry of crazed action against a chequered floor bathed in pink light. There are hints of Vertigo – a comparably elusive film plot-wise – in the central relationship, which has its own melancholic twists and turns. But if Diao’s intent on confounding us, he has the courtesy to do it with frequently astonishing style and verve.